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Tuesday, April 21, 2020

Dungeons and Discord


Crafting characters, stories, and entire worlds while trying to stop the barbarian from attacking the gnome priest . . . how Dungeons & Dragons makes you a better writer.  ♦ 
Dungeons & Dragons (D&D) is a tabletop game that has withstood the test of time. It has also helped me create and craft a story I hope to eventually turn into a series, centered around high fantasy elements such as mythological creatures and fantastical landscapes. The genre alone carries a near-limitless potential, but it also allows for far too many opportunities to get stumped. How should I describe this town? Who should I make as the leader of this group? What kinds of abilities does this massive, Cthulhu-looking, eldritch-abomination of a teddy bear have, and how can I make them work? What significance does all of this even have to the world I created? A few sessions of D&D can provide answers to these questions and more.

How much effort goes into making a vivid little map of a fictional world? A good example of a well-built location would be Hogwarts from the Harry Potter series. Simply hearing the name of that wizard school brings to mind images of shifting stairs, living portraits, and medieval-styled dungeons full of desks and bubbling cauldrons. It’s a location that sticks with you and such a thing can be very hard to make. However, how does one who has probably never written a full-length story reach that kind of skill? Simple, through trial and error, and copious amounts of improvisation. To put things into perspective, a single D&D session will regularly force me to build multiple locations in the heat of the moment, and it’s all due to the unpredictability of my players.

Let me tell you, creating an entire dungeon for players to explore without prior planning can be a serious workout for any storyteller, especially if it needs to keep them engaged for a couple of hours. I had to imagine an entire winding labyrinth of caves, ancient holding cells, statues engraved with jagged eldritch runes, and a variety of other methods to provide lore for the dungeon. Books were scattered about, tattered and worn with age, some cursed to punish any curious adventurers. Ghosts, which some players could interact with using spells or items, would regale them with tales of torture or grand designs long forgotten. Then, when all was said and done, I had to create a massive room where the party faced down the final enemy. All of this was done as the players explored and fought.

As I grew used to making locations, I found another area I needed a whole lot of work in: crafting characters. Making a character from scratch can be difficult because people are complex creatures. We all think in so many different ways, and it’s hard to see things from different perspectives. This is where D&D helped me out, because I was encouraged to become someone else, someone with a different personality and mindset. I played a suave rogue, a valiant paladin, and a creepy warlock, but those felt too stale and too limiting after a couple of sessions. Then, I got to thinking, “How else can I play this kind of character?” From there, things got fun, and my ability to make a person, not just a character, began to grow.

I started small by adopting some characteristics of different character templates. It made other players laugh at how unusual or conflicting my characters would be to their class’s expectations. I made my paladin a little more suave and teasing, while I tried to slip some valiance into the warlock. Then, I went deeper, playing a darker and more conniving paladin hiding behind a gentleman’s facade, while the warlock became a self-sacrificing gentleman that was far quieter and almost shy. From there, it became a game to see how complex, crazy, or unusual I could make my characters. It was this experience that led to me looking up a couple of other cultures and accents, all in the pursuit of a new character to play, and ultimately new characters to fit into my stories.

So, with a location built and a character crafted, all I needed to do was construct the world. I needed to create entire peoples and cultures to give life to my story. I used a variety of real-life cultures as a basis for my own. Some people were even mixtures of them or none of them. It became fun to see how I could make cities work, how I could build a hierarchy in a community, or even how they would respond to a character or player’s actions. So many aspects needed to be considered, including things like the economy and social conflicts. I started to feel like my work was becoming real with every new people I created, and every connection I built between them.

Every single D&D session was, and still is, a learning experience for me. There’s always some slight character detail or a new location that needed to be explored. Unfortunately, like with all things, there are limitations to the benefit of sticking to just D&D. It’s hard to naturally work in sci-fi elements, and there are some scenarios you just can’t effectively play out, even as a DM.

For the more specific scenarios in which I want to test a series of predetermined events, I use Discord. Discord is a fun little system that works like Skype, but it is better because it lets me play out different kinds of scenarios with my friends. We make servers in which we put individual text channels to post responses to one another. I would describe actions and dialogue from a character or characters I control, and they do the same. It becomes a back and forth between us that slowly unfurls into a full-blown story.

Oftentimes, since a lot of my friends don’t live nearby, we use Discord to either play D&D or try out other things. The D&D sessions become more heavily focused on role-playing instead of combat, and we get to extend the kinds of scenarios we play since it’s all online. I even bring them into some role-plays in other settings like a sprawling space station, or a present-day city like Cleveland or New York City. We do anything from testing out how two kinds of character would interact at a bar, or how they might lead a crew on a mile-long spaceship. The limits of the kinds of stories we can play out and the characters we use disappear, since like with books the images are all left to imagination and how well-written they are.

So, to all aspiring writers and storytellers, I suggest that you pick up a couple of D&D handbooks, download Discord, and get playing. I’ll look forward to seeing what new stories and characters will grace the writing community after your own adventures.

  • About the Author
    Chris Marcellino is a Biomedical Engineering student at Miami University with a minor in Creative Writing. He first took on writing as a hobby in sixth grade and has been a member of two creative writing clubs; one in high school, which he started, and one at Miami. His writing is primarily fantasy-based with some sci-fi elements thrown in. He has used his past personal projects to help him run and participate in several Dungeons and Dragons campaigns. It is his hope that honing his writing skills will not only help him complete his novel but as he enters the workforce as a Biomedical Engineer.

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